Jennica Beukes | Aug 06, 2021

Why coalition agreements should be public

In the previous articles of the coalition series in the Local Government Bulletin, it was argued that the proportional representation (PR) electoral system of local government and the absence of electoral thresholds creates the possibility for hung councils to recur in municipalities, making the formation of coalition governments necessary.

Generally, the coalition formation process is concluded after the political parties have formulated a coalition agreement to, among others, cement their bargains and to structure the coalition. What type of bargains are struck between political parties? What are the roles of each political party in the coalition government? How will the parties resolve conflicts in the coalition government? What objectives does the coalition government intend to achieve over their five-year governance term? What checks and balances are in place to facilitate dispute resolution and maintain stability in the coalition? What measures and approaches will the coalition implement to achieve its objectives? These questions baffle external parties (local communities, other political parties, media and civil society) who are not part of the coalition government because coalition agreements are not public. This article argues that coalition agreements should be made public to increase their persuasive value in motivating the coalition parties to adhere to the agreement and thus make coalitions sustainable.

The status of coalition governments in municipalities

Many coalition governments in municipalities such as the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality, Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality, Kannaland Local Municipality, Mogale Local Municipality, and Bitou Local Municipality have been unstable. Local communities to whom coalition governments must account do not often have any knowledge of why these governments become unstable. Generally, the public is guided by media reports of perceived levels of conflict in the coalition when coalition parties cannot maintain unity in the municipal council or in public. This manifests in several ways including the weaponisation of motions of no confidence against members of the coalition, abstentions from voting in the council to deprive the coalition of its majority and coalition parties speaking out against their coalition partners in public. Abstentions from voting in the context of bare-majority coalitions (which depends on the support of every coalition party to muster a majority to take resolutions such as adopting a budget in the council) negatively impacts service delivery. This begs the question whether the publication of coalition agreements may motivate coalition parties to cooperate and thus improve stability in coalition governments in municipalities.

The publication of coalition agreements is a norm in countries with a long history of coalition governments

In countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, Germany and Kenya, coalition agreements are made public. These agreements are generally published when the political parties announce that they will govern together in a coalition government. Political parties may also publish the coalition agreement sooner but as a rule of thumb, coalition agreements must be published no later than the date of the council’s first sitting.

The Constitution and legislation provide grounds for coalition agreements to be made public

Section 152 of the Constitution requires, among others, that coalition governments who govern in municipalities provide democratic and accountable government to local communities and to encourage the involvement of these local communities in matters of local government. This provision echoes the founding values of accountability, responsiveness and openness upon which South Africa’s democratic state is founded.

It is argued that the failure to disclose coalition agreements may be in contravention of section 32(1)(a) of the Constitution and the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2 of 2000 which deals with the right of access to information held by the State. Failure to provide local communities with access to information set out in the coalition agreement also prevents citizens from exercising their constitutional right in section 19(1)(b) of the Constitution. The provision dictates that every citizen is free to make political choices which includes the right to, inter alia, participate in the activities of a political party. The failure to publish coalition agreements means that political parties who are party to a coalition government leave their constituents in the dark about their political activities as expressed in the coalition agreement. Thus, by not publishing certain aspects of the coalition agreement, coalition partners exercising legislative and executive functions in the council have arguably failed to uphold their constitutional mandate to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights of the Bill of Rights in section 7(2) of the Constitution.

Publishing coalition agreements encourages the involvement of the public in the workings of the coalition government

Political parties use election manifestos to inform their voters about what they intend to do if they assume legislative and executive authority in a municipality. Against this background, residents can use these manifestos to monitor and scrutinise the actions of their political representatives and hold them accountable for their performance during their governance term. However, in the context of coalition governments, where two or more political parties govern together without a public coalition agreement, there is no way that local communities can know what the priorities of the coalition are or how they intend to achieve these in the municipality. The lines of accountability will also become blurred because local communities and other stakeholders do not have access to information about how the coalition is organised (i.e the specific roles that their political representatives exercise in the executive and the council). For this reason, they cannot monitor the responsiveness of their political representatives to their coalition commitments in their respective policy areas or oversight committees. Therefore, the failure to make coalition agreements public in municipalities inhibits the effective involvement of local communities in matters of local government. This is so because ‘matters of local government’ relates not only to matters in the administration but also to matters emanating from the political arm of municipalities.

Benefits derived from publishing coalition agreements

Apart from benefiting local communities, the publication of the coalition agreement may also benefit political parties of the coalition government. Political parties often bemoan the lack of political will of coalition parties to honour their commitments in the coalition agreement. In other cases, the veil of secrecy around coalition agreements may encourage political parties to make commitments that are in reality unconstitutional or unrealistic. Consider, for example, the coalition between the African National Congress (ANC) and the African Independent Congress in which the ANC committed to reincorporate the Eastern Cape town of Matatiele in KwaZulu-Natal as the main condition for agreeing to enter a coalition with the ANC. To honour their commitment, the Constitution must be amended through a cumbersome procedure in section 74(1) of the Constitution whereby the ANC needs to secure a supporting vote of at least 75 percent of the members in the National Assembly and the support of at least six provinces. An amendment will thus require a collective effort from two-thirds of all political parties in the National Assembly who is unlikely to support them. Hence the ANC’s promise to effect a provincial boundary change is improbable and unrealistic.

The publication of the coalition agreement may also encourage political parties to adhere to the coalition agreement for fear of being scrutinised by the public which may, in turn, compromise the brand of the political party. It could also legitimise coalition governments by emboldening coalition parties to uphold the rule of law, accountability and good governance whilst minimising opportunities for unfairness in the allocation of legislative and executive authority in the coalition government.

Finally, political parties may be able to establish why coalitions become unstable if they have access to the information that is set out in coalition agreements. In this way, political parties can learn valuable lessons that can improve future coalition arrangements in local government. The various coalition governments would serve as experiments and political parties may learn how to structure their own coalition agreements through relying on examples of existing coalition agreements that can serve as draft models to them. Political parties may also determine which political parties are good coalition partners by monitoring their performance in existing coalition governments. In this instance, the publication of coalition agreements may create an environment in which political parties may draw on the experience of previous coalition governments and to build on those experiences to strengthen future coalition governments.

Not all aspects of the coalition agreement should be made public

Coalition parties do not have to publish every aspect of the coalition agreement such as privileged and confidential information, which if published could harm the public interest. Information of the coalition agreement that are generally made public in other countries including India, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands include: the core values and objectives of the coalition, the rules and organogram of the coalition, the functions and powers of their formal structures, their policy priorities, and a coalition programme detailing how they intend to achieve their objectives.

Conclusion

Coalition agreements are currently not public in South Africa. The veil of secrecy around coalition agreements makes it easy for coalition parties to violate these agreements. This article advances the following arguments in favour of the publication of coalition agreements in municipalities:

  • It is in the public interest to publish coalition agreements because it can enable the media, academics, local communities and others to broadly comprehend the workings of coalitions in municipalities;
  • Transparent coalition agreements will enable citizens to participate in the political activities of their representatives and matters of local government, generally;
  • The Constitution and legislation provide compelling grounds for coalition agreements to be made public;
  • While it may be justified for certain aspects of the coalition agreement to remain confidential, it is in the public interest to publicise those aspects of the agreement that relates to the rules, structures, and organogram of the coalition, division of legislative and executive authority, policy priorities and the coalition programme;
  • The publication of coalition agreements may also improve future coalition arrangements in local government as political parties may draw lessons from the arrangements of previous coalitions and build on that to improve their own coalition arrangements; and
  • Political parties in the coalition government can rely on the public and other political parties to police the implementation of the coalition government and, in turn, foster cooperation, accountability, responsiveness and thus stability in the coalition government.

 

Jennica Beukes, Doctoral Researcher

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